Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

Back to all reviews

Trempealeau by John T. Umhoefer

Reviewed on: March 1, 2024


Talus Books:  Madison, WI
2024 (PB)

This lengthy novel (400+ pages) is quite a departure from the books reviewed on this site.  Its relationship to archaeology is minimal at best, although at its fictional heart it does prominently feature a remnant of a Native American band that successfully escaped the collapse of Cahokia, the Mississippian city-state of some 15- 20,000 souls near present-day St. Louis that flourished for some 300 years between 1050-1350 CE.  The author deftly works into his fictional narrative the creation of the Mississippian outposts at Aztalan in southeastern Wisconsin, and the northern settlement in the bluffs overlooking the modern-day village of Trempealeau. 

The ”McGuffin” in the story is based in historical fact, when, in January of 1974, Lt. Col. Gerald P. Carr, Commander of  the NASA Skylab 4 mission, reported a large natural circular structure on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border between somewhere in the vicinity of La Crosse and Winona.  Author Umhoefer uses this bit of NASA history and spins a highly imaginative tale of science fiction, fantasy and political intrigue.

The major characters include Col. Frank Ross, a retired US Army Special Ops liaison, who, in the spring of 2003, and after a near thirty-year “absence,” is assigned to investigate claims made by retired University of Wisconsin-La Crosse geology professor, Lawrence Marten, that the world will end in the near future, based upon increasingly strong seismic tremors emanating from western Wisconsin.  The 86-year-old professor’s wife, Tess, will also play a major role in the unfolding cataclysmic drama.

Appearing in western Wisconsin at the same time is a shadowy figure from the past-- Commander (no first name ever given) Hutchinson, a CIA assassin who murdered Ross’s son 29 years earlier.

Rounding out the cast of major characters is Jennifer von Guericke, who has returned to the family homestead near Wisconsin’s Trempealeau County village of Elk Creek for her mother’s funeral.  She is now literally an orphan as her father, Erich, disappeared in 1964, when she was 13.  The funeral is the culmination of a spate of personal tragedies that began when Jennifer’s professional and emotional life was destroyed, along with seven astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia—a project for which she was NASA Mission Control Chair. 

The grieving Jen is drawn into a veritable gyre of mystery and intrigue going back to the years of World War II and even much farther back than that.  For this little corner of Trempealeau County holds secrets that the good people of that rural “Eden” have even killed to protect.  As she is inexorably pulled into this vortex of conspiracy, Jen fears that she may become the latest victim of the mysterious disappearances that plague Trempealeau.

Much of the charm of this novel, billed as “Book One” of the “Trempealeau Stories,” is the sense of place—the loving descriptions of the western Wisconsin landscape, including such landmarks as Myrick Marsh and Miller’s Bluff in La Crosse and the regal Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Independence.  For those of us of a certain age, references to such high holy places in La Crosse as John’s Bar (with mention of Ralph, the intellectually gifted and incredibly shy bartender) and Del’s Bar, bring back fond, if somewhat muzzy memories.

If I laud the author for these regional accuracies, I must also mention two slip-ups in local lore and legend—one minor and one major.  The minor error:  Professor Marten could not have been a professor of Geology at UW-La Crosse (or WSU-La Crosse or La Crosse State Teachers College), but he was probably a member of the Geography Department.  Much less forgivable was the reference to “Mr. Dee’s” coffee shop on the corner of State and West Avenue.  It was “Mr. D’s,” and it had arguably the best doughnuts in the western hemisphere (and possibly some of worst coffee).  But this egregious error was easily off-set by the author having one of his characters exclaim “Jeez Louise,” and his deep dive into the intricacies of cheesemaking!

Three trowels for this epic fantasy (with a little bit of archaeology).

Twenty Years in the Trenches: Archaeology in Fiction

William Gresens, longtime MVAC supporter and volunteer, has been writing reviews of archaeological fiction as MVAC’s book reviewer for twenty years.  In this interview Bill shares how he got started writing reviews for MVAC, how the genre has changed, highlights, and his thoughts looking forward. 

Bill Gresen’s Book Review 20th Anniversary

While Bill's reviews go back 20 years now, his relationship with MVAC goes back more than twice that long! The reviews capture some of the things we enjoy most about Bill-- he's perceptive, methodical, a clear thinker, and a whole lot of fun! We look forward to this relationship--and Bill's reviews!--continuing for many years to come.

The March 2021 review marks the 20th anniversary of reviews of archaeological fiction.  It has been my pleasure and great fun to while away the hours reading these books—for the most part, at least—and writing the reviews!  My thanks to MVAC allowing me to prattle on and I look forward to the years ahead.

Bill Gresens